Aug 24, 2023 - Health

The kindergarten vaccine exemption rate keeps ticking up

Share of kindergartners with vaccine exemptions
Data: CDC; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The nationwide median rate of kindergartners with vaccine exemptions nearly doubled between the school years ending in 2012 and 2022, per CDC estimates.

The big picture: While COVID-19 vaccination is not required for young children attending public school anywhere in the U.S., it appears that concerns over that shot may be fueling broader vaccine skepticism among a relatively small but growing number of parents — though that trend certainly existed before the pandemic.

Why it matters: Vaccinations reduce the spread of childhood illnesses — some potentially fatal — that once plagued the country, such as polio.

  • While children are generally required to get a number of vaccinations before attending public school, exemptions can be given for both medical and non-medical reasons (such as religious or moral objections), depending on local rules.
  • Studies have found an increased risk of infection from vaccine-preventable diseases among exempt children.

By the numbers: The nationwide median kindergarten vaccine exemption rate was rising even before the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing from 1.4% in 2012 to 2.6% in 2019.

  • It has stayed at 2.5% or higher since 2020, coming in at 2.7% in 2022, the latest year for which data is available.

Zoom in: As of 2022, Idaho (9.8%), Utah (7.4%) and Oregon (7%) had the highest median kindergarten vaccination exemption rates.

  • Mississippi, New York and West Virginia were tied for the lowest, at 0.1%.

Between the lines: Even as the kindergarten vaccine exemption rate ticks up, Americans as a whole are overwhelmingly supportive of childhood vaccinations, per a recent (and deeply enlightening) Pew Research Center survey.

  • When it comes to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) shot, 88% of Americans said the benefits outweigh the risks, compared to 10% who feel the opposite.
  • "The share expressing confidence in the value of MMR vaccines is identical to the share who said this in 2019, before the coronavirus outbreak," per Pew.

Yes, but: Just 70% of Americans now say healthy kids should be vaccinated as a requirement to attend public school, Pew found — down from 82% in the pre-pandemic era.

  • There's a significant partisan split here, with 85% of Democrats agreeing with such a requirement compared to 57% of Republicans.
  • While Democratic support for vaccine requirements held steady between pre- and post-pandemic years, Republican support took a remarkable nosedive, falling from 79% in 2019.
  • Put another way, the overall decline in support for vaccination requirements is being driven almost entirely by Republicans.

The bottom line: We'd like to see further research before definitively saying that skepticism around the COVID shots is leading to higher childhood vaccination exemption rates — but it sure seems that way.

  • As Pew put it: "Those who are not vaccinated for COVID-19 are among those most likely to express concern about childhood vaccines generally."
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